By Simon Willison

What’s the deal with Gmail?

By Simon Willison

If you’ve been connected to the ‘net at all in the past few months, you can’t have missed the hype surrounding Gmail, Google’s new 1 GB webmail service. Going one up on the phenomenally successful word of mouth campaign that launched their search engine to stardom, Gmail’s invite-only policy has created the kind of buzz most marketers can only dream about. But aside from the storage space gimmick and the fact that it’s a product from Google, why should you care about Gmail?

The answer is that it turns many preconceptions about web application interfaces upside down.

Gmail is slick, smooth and very, very fast. It’s speed in displaying messages and switching between different views rivals that of desktop mail clients, and many of the features on offer (the innovative threading and the outstanding search capabilities) are leaps and bounds ahead of regular applications. This is a web app that for the most part works better than its desktop equivalents.

From the technical side of things, the performance boost is achieved using a particularly clever piece of JavaScript trickery. The bulk of the Gmail application is loaded in to memory in a hidden frame the first time you visit the site. From that point on, emails, thread listings and other views are loaded from the server as ultra light-weight JavaScript data structures. Bandwidth usage is minimal, and response times over broadband are virtually negligible from the user’s perspective. Even the email address auto-completion (a particularly slick piece of the Gmail puzzle) calls back to the server on every key stroke!

Sadly, this increased performance comes at a heavy cost. Gmail is the least web-like web application I’ve ever seen: everything is accessed through the same URL, and a large number of common browser operations such as opening links in new windows simply don’t work. A corollary to this is that Gmail suffers from atrocious accessibility, which lead me to ask a few weeks ago if apps of this sort were the exception to the rule that alternative “accessible” versions of sites are a bad idea.

At any rate, the ultra-rich internet application field is heating up, with Yahoo! buying out Oddpost just last Friday. I haven’t seen much of OddPost myself due to it being an IE/Windows only affair, but it’s an almost pixel-perfect Outlook clone implemented in DHTML, which appears to be a forerunner to Gmail in loading the application scripts once and then communicating with the server using as little overhead as possible.

Are these kinds of apps good for the web going forward? I’m not sure – but they’re certainly bringing Joel Spolsky’s vision of HTML as the next major application platform forward ahead of schedule.

  • Sergeant

    Gmail is a great start for building onlne applications. The 1 gig is, well, great.

    But I hope this won’t be the standard in the coming years. Maybe it’s technically better, but I really think the user is the main reason an application is build.

    I tried Gmail with Opera but it simply refuses logging in. Thank you Google!

  • Hans Lysglimt

    Gmail – good and bad
    Gmail by Google
    I have had a good look at Gmail by Google.
    Gmail is different, and it is good. But there is still quite a lot to be desired from it.
    Gmail is based on the premise that you store all your email online, we at runbox are of the same belief and have been working on this for 5 years. It is nice to see that the world is finally waking up to this idea.
    So in some fundamental ways runbox and Google agree here.

    What’s good with Gmail:
    – Online storage and massive storage space.
    – Neat interface.
    – Non intrusive ads, Google does this well.
    – Some neat new ways of organizing email, they have borrowed some from Operas email client and come up with some new on their own.
    You do searches and store the searches, this way email can be found several different ways.
    – Extensive use of Javascript that allows your browser to act more like a local application.

    What’s not so good with Gmail:
    – They don’t allow anything else but online storage, your mail is stuck online.
    I like giving people options.
    It does not have POP, SMTP, IMAP, WAP, Mobile text only interface, SMS. It only has the browser baser interface.
    – The ads are still there, I believe you waste time, bandwidth and most importantly your concentration by having the ads there.
    – Javascript can slow things down if you are on a low bandwidth client like over a phone modem. It also requires a new browser, sorry Lynx users – no will do.
    – The fact that they explicitly store your data and mine your data, the privacy issue is important.
    – Support, you cant purchase a premium service and you will therefore not get premium support even if you are willing to pay for it.
    – Still unsolved child deceases – I have been in the email business for 5 years and I have some idea of the trouble Gmail will face in the next few months. They will have some major hurdles to jump over going forward, though I have no doubt they will eventually overcome them.

    Gmail is an innovative product from Google that will make Google a lot of searches clicks and therefore money. It is brilliant for Google as their number of searches will go drastically up.

    The new application is neat, and many will like it. People claim that Gmail will also have new and substantially better virus scan and spam scan. I doubt that, we follow the spam scan and virus scan industry and there are no secrets in this business. Its really about having a team that can implement and manage the systems as they become available to everyone. Anyway, time will tell if Gmail does it any better than anyone else on this.

    For the demanding email user Gmail does not offer the range in options you would desire. Gmail is build on a particular business model of showing ads and will tie you into this model. If you want to download your email to MS Outlook, or use it with a text only interface on your cell phone you cant. So if you want to have all email options open, you will still need a premium service. Time will show if Gmail will offer a premium service, but I doubt it as they are in the business of showing ads.

    I believe Gmail will take a substantial part of the free email market, they will eat from Hotmail and Yahoo mail as well as from many ISP emails and other included email services.
    For the premium email market and the demanding email users Gmail is less of a option/threat as they will hold people into their business model.
    Gmail will suffer from growth related pain like every other email service I know of have done. I therefore advice to have a wait and see approach to Gmail for 6-12 months and them make up status.

  • Jake

    Thanks for the insight, although kinda long winded, it was great! ;)

  • KJ

    I wonder whether all the talk around accesibility at the moment should focus less on a website adhering to the W3C guidelines and more on more intelligent clients that are used to browse the net.

    Not saying that websites shouldn’t focus on accessibility, just that more focus should be put on developing better clients.

  • For the accessibility people, Gmail are thinking about/working on an HTML version of the site, so it will be accessible at some point. It says so on their site :p

  • Scott

    I see people blaming Google for Gmail not working with their Opera client. Perhaps this is not something done by Google, but rather something that could be fixed in an update release of Opera. Since this email service is running a nifty form of java script then perhaps it is not only the Gmail service that is not working with it, but rather any number of other javascripts on the net that these people have simply not come across yet. Yes Google could work out this bug too, but that, surely is all it is, is a bug. The service is still in Beta and most of us still have not been lucky enough to get an account, so it is entirely possible that the final release of the service WILL work on opera, and the fuctions that are not working properly will also likely be fixed. That IS, after all, the point of a beta version – to test the software and work out the bugs. It doesn’t take a genious to figure this out.

  • The reason GMail doesn’t work in Opera is that it makes very heavy use of XMLHttpRequest, a feature initially implemented in IE which has been duplicated in Mozilla and more recently Safari. It’s completely non-standard so there’s no obligation for the Opera team to support it, but it may well be in their plans as they’ve implemented a few other pseudo-standards such as innerHTML.

  • Dorsey

    Maybe I’m just old school, but I don’t want to trust management of my mail to someone else. By that, I mean storage and disposal. I feel most comfortable downloading messages to my home server, then deleting them online. I do use webmail for remote access, but once I return to the mother ship, all the mail comes with me. I haven’t been burned recently by an outsider losing everything, but once was enough to last a lifetime.

  • Ox

    We must also remember that gmail is still in BETA which means it’s not being released properly.

    If you have a look at the suggestions, they are going to be working on the POP account in order for you to be able to download things, and I believe there are still MANY features to come with GMAIL.

    Power to google though they have made a HUGE buzz all over the net.

  • Anonymous

    Beta schmeta.

    Google news has been in beta for a long time now. It seems to be nothing more than backup insurance in case the system craps out. If it does, expect, “Well, we can’t be held responsible, it was only in beta!”

  • James

    Ok, people.
    First Gmail IS in beta. There is a HUGE number of features that Google has promised, including Pop3, a Plain HTML acess system (aka, Opera comptability), Much better spam filters, etc..
    Next: people say that Gmail is slow on slow computers or over dialup. WRONG! Gmail loads like 5 times faster then Yahoo mail in both of these situations.
    Next: privacy. Gmail spicificly says that no human will EVER look at your email. I believe that thats even in the agreement when you sign up. ISPs have NEVER promised such a thing, plus ISPs ALREADY scan your email with bots & stuff, looking for viruses & spam.

  • Micah

    I hate all this “work on every browser” crap. Get over it and use ie or firefox. Really, I mean come on people, if you are using a crappy browser and want to be “individualistic” you just simply aren’t going to enjoy great internet. Google rocks and I’m going to use whatever browser they make stuff in. Get over it. Micah

  • Apexdv

    “I hate all this “work on every browser” crap. Get over it and use ie or firefox.” . . . I will not use IE and there is no getting over it. “Crappy browser”? Hmmm. Mozilla: have you even looked at the features it offers, needless to say there are many more and, of course, not as many security concerns.

    No, this is not “being individualistic” and although I do not use IE (I’ve tried Firefox and still prefer Mozilla: tried, true and trusted. Too, I am a Linux user. Since the conversion from M$ products I sometimes feel I have forgoten what “reboot” means.

    Linux: it is used at my work (a large fortune 500 company) so is of great convenience to have it at home. Contrary to popular beliefs, Linux is an extremely user friendly OS. Please, if my grandmother of 96 can use it without issue then anyone can (and enjoy it). :=)

    As far as “great internet” there has not been one time I have not been able to fully enjoy internet content while using and “individualistic” browser.

    As far as GMail, it is still ib beta. They have stated they are working on Opera support, POP3, etc. The system seems to run quite swiftly (even on my dial-up connection!) more than likely due to the lack of fanciful graphic-buttons, etc, but, hey, that’s fine with me.

    Cross-browser compatibility is EXTREMELY important for web-based systems, Micah. Without it, you completely lose out on an extremely large user base (tranlation=$$$). By the way, have you looked at Opera features at all? They put IE to shame. Not too crappy.


  • Alex Teixeira Benfica

    Gmail is really impressive!
    Works fine and is faster than other web bases mail.
    I believe it should have an calendar for birthdays and tasks, like Yahoo. It would make it complete to me.
    POP, SMTP are completely unnecessary cause you have so much space to store your messages.
    Then, if you prefer, you can use the GmailFS to store files on gmail (like a FTP site).
    The Google team has done a very good work!

  • Every one is entitled to a personal opinion, the only one I have to give is “DOES ANYONE HAVE AN IV TO SPARE PLEASE! PLEASE!! PLEASE!!! CAN YOU GIVE ME”.

  • nokiaman

    gmail is amazingly slow to send email. I sent a friend a bunch of photos from gmail – 10 minutes later he still hadn’t received them. Then I sent the same from Yahoo! those got delivered before gmail!

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